Review: At ‘Tartuffe’ in the Park, Hypocrisy Is No Picnic

I would like to think that the great French playwright Moliere, who died in 1673, would have really enjoyed the flagrant hypocrisy of the present political moment. Every month there seems to be a new duplicity, a new scandal, a lie big and small — résumés embroidered like rococo tapestries, lawmakers endorsing conspiracy theories to get ahead. A follower of prior commitments and double deals, Moliere would have maxed out such a story in his three acts. In a way, and on multiple plays, he already does. More than 350 years after his death, he looks effortlessly and frighteningly modern.

But the current production of Tartuffe by the theater company Moliere in the Park, based on the playwright’s original version, takes a different approach. Although famous in his 1664 when the play was written, it was soon banned by the Archbishop, who had a limited sense of humor. It skewers not only those who preach morality while practicing the alternative, but also the ducks and ducks who keep such people in power. Doesn’t that sound appropriate? But this sophisticated and rational production, staged outdoors in Prospect Park by director Lucy Tiberghien, busily roaming its tiny stage, never gets its hands on the present. It never stretches.

Maya Slater is credited as translator for the English premiere, which simplifies the script, reduces the number of characters, and omits most of the third act. When “Tartuffe, or the Hypocrites” begins, the cleric Tartuffe (Matthew Rausch, oilier than a perfect slice of New York) is already set up in the home of wealthy Orgon (Jonathan Gebeif). Orgon’s wife Elmia (Michel Vaintimilla), his son, and brother-in-law all know Tartuffe, but Orgon and his mother refuse to believe what Tartuffe is saying. In the end, Tartuffe proposes to Hermire. But Orgone is still unmoved. He would rather disinherit his own family than trust his wife.

Moliere in the Park staged Tartuffe for the first time about three years ago, changing the cast and the translation. This was a pioneering work for Zoom theater, coming out at a time when most of us didn’t even know how to use the mute button. (A live version, with a slightly altered cast, followed a year later.) In a book review for The New York Times, Jesse Green called the streaming show “full of joy in our nasty times,” saying that President Trump And praised the production that implied the president. Black lives matter. How strange, then, that the work, despite its modern garb, utterly resists contemporary allusions and reduces Tartuffe to a run-of-the-mill domestic farce.

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